Spoken Like an Artist


Colby's summer exhibition, The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture: 60 Years, pairs artists' work with the lectures they delivered at the prestigious art school

By Ruth Jacobs
Photography by John Meader

Photo courtesy of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture
The scene is the same as it has been for decades. Mosquitoes swarm as the sun goes down, and artists from around the world flock to the old Fresco Barn to hear a lecture at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. This year's 65 student-artists were selected from a pool of 1,642 applicants"the largest ever"to attend this unique nine-week summer session on a converted farm in central Maine. These are accomplished artists, but they have yet to reach the peak of their careers and will benefit from the time to focus on their art and nothing else. They are surrounded by woods and fields, and they're taught by a faculty chosen from the most noteworthy artists of the day, many of whom attended the school years before.

Like those of hundreds of artists before, this talk will be taped for inclusion in the Skowhegan Lecture Archive, a trove of material that is part of a current exhibit at the Colby College Museum of Art. The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture: 60 Years, on view July 22 through October 29, pairs the work of some of the school's distinguished faculty members from the past six decades with recordings of lectures they delivered in the Fresco Barn.

Photo courtesy of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture
The Skowhegan School's formal program of recording lectures began in 1952, when the technology was reel-to-reel tape. Students historically have checked recordings out of the library to glean inspiration from faculty of years past, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, David Hockney, and Kiki Smith. With the tapes in danger of deteriorating, a multiyear process of transferring the recordings onto compact discs began in 1997.

The school, known throughout the art world as one of the most prestigious places to work and study, initially gave the digital audio archive to five institutions: the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., and the Colby College Museum of Art, with which it has a longstanding collaborative relationship. Colby's exhibit is the first in which the audio archive has been the centerpiece of a major exhibition.

The work of 27 prominent artists, with styles ranging from traditional plein air landscapes to conceptual installations, are exhibited along with the audio from the Skowhegan lectures. While viewing the works at Colby, visitors can listen to the artist's thoughts about art. Sharon Corwin, director and chief curator of the museum, sees that as a major strength of the exhibit. "I think one of the things that makes this exhibition so special is that you're not only looking at the work on view but you're also listening to [the artists] express the ideas that they were engaged with at the time."

Skowhegan School faculty members have delivered lectures in the Fresco Barn for decades. Students learn the traditional art of fresco painting, and the walls of the timber-frame structure are covered from floor to ceiling with works that show a broad range of styles.
Photo by John Meader
Corwin and the curatorial committee deliberately chose works that the artists created around the time that they delivered the lectures. "While the excerpts rarely address the specific works of art they are paired with, they do illuminate a moment of thinking contemporaneous with the works on view," Corwin wrote in her catalogue introduction.

Take Agnes Martin, who spoke to an enthusiastic packed house in the Fresco Barn in 1987. "Beauty is very much broader than just to the eye," she told the artists. "It is our whole positive response to life. An artist is fortunate in that his work is the inner contemplation of beauty, of perfection in life. We cannot make anything perfectly, but with inner contemplation of perfection we can suggest it." Organizers believe that the opportunity to hear those words while viewing her work, the 1994 painting Untitled #6, recently acquired by Colby, will give viewers a unique understanding of Martin's point of view.

Then there was the abstract sculptor David Smith who, in 1956, said, "I've been more concerned with questions than I have with answers. In my work I don't really have any answers yet, outside of very personal ones." He went on to ask the artists a series of questions. "Do you make art your life"that which always comes first and occupies every moment"the last problem before sleep and the first awakening vision?"

The tone of his talk exemplifies an important element of the lectures"they are artists speaking to fellow artists. "The talks have been very generous, I have to say, because the setting is intimate," said Linda Earle, Skowhegan's executive program director. "It's a very artist-to-artist tone, very informal." Colby's exhibition offers a window into the thoughts and philosophies of artists whom many art lovers could only wish for the opportunity to meet in such an informal way.
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